Culture of costs transparency a goal of new MSMA president

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Published: August 4,2008

The new president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) is committed to making healthcare better and more accessible for everyone. It’s J. Patrick Barrett, M.D., a Jackson spine surgeon who’s practiced with Bruce Senter, M.D., for 17 years at Mississippi Spine Clinic.

Barrett grew up in a family of four boys and one daughter, children of Mary Claire Simmons Barrett and the late Roger McNees Barrett in McComb where they thought they were city kids. He proudly says his parents were the strongest influences in his life. The second son, he didn’t follow his father and older brother into architecture, choosing medicine instead.

“As corny as it sounds, in high school I admired our good family friend and doctor, one of the Brocks who were two generations of medicine in McComb,” he said. I decided to give it a try, helping people, and I thought it would be a good, useful thing to do.”

With a strong interest in engineering, Barrett says he probably would be a mechanical engineer if he weren’t a physician. “There was a time in medical school when I thought I had made a mistake not going into engineering,” he recalls. “Then I discovered orthopedics and surgery and that seemed to combine engineering with medicine.”

One brother (referred to as “the other Dr. Barrett”), Gene Richard Barrett, also chose medicine and is an orthopedic surgeon in Jackson.

The new MSMA leader expects medical finance reform to be a hot topic in Mississippi and all over the country for the next several years. “I hope to see some meaningful debate,” he said. “The most important challenge for us is to believe in the ancient oath we’ve taken and strive to live by it in the real world — the world of politics and money. That’s the most important challenge.”

Any other industry?

The real world of politics and the economy, he feels, treats medicine like any other industry.

“This year of change will give us an opportunity we can ill afford to miss,” he said. “One direction of change could lead us down the road to socialized medicine or single-payer medicine. What other single-payer is there except our federal government? The history of anything socialized is dismal and leads to eventual failure — failure of cost containment and delivery of services. No truly socialized medical system in any country can stand up to scrutiny.”

To demonstrate that failure, Barrett points to the socialized parts of our medical system — Medicare and Medicaid, calling them the most problematic areas in the delivery of medical services. “Would we honestly want the entire system to take that form?” he asks.

He feels the biggest problem with these federal programs is their linkage of re-imbursement to a sustainable growth rate. “There has been no major increase in reimbursements in 11 years. We have to fight like the dickens to get small increases while everything that doctors have to have has gone up,” he said. “The Medicaid funding situation in Mississippi between the Legislature and the governor is absurd — a game of chicken. Medicaid is so important to our population. The first step is to fully fund it and do the best we can.”

Barrett sees a big problem in Mississippi as physicians look at the reimbursement problem to make decisions of whether or not to continue their practice.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing more doctors cutting back on Medicare and Medicaid patients. It’s not something we want to do,” he said. “Others are considering retiring or leaving private practice. I’ve been in practice 30 years, and I don’t want to retire.”

Compounding the problem

This problem is compounded in a state that already has a huge shortage of physicians, especially in rural areas. Well more than half of the state’s practicing physicians are age 50-plus, Barrett added. The overwhelming abundance of paperwork required to participate in these federal programs is also discouraging to physicians.

He sees the need to spend more money and effort on preventive medicine as another big issue for the state, more important than in other states because of Mississippi’s lead in obesity and other health risk factors.

The 61-year-old Barrett wants to promote a culture of transparency of costs in medical offices, hospitals, surgical centers, imaging centers and drug companies.

“When patients can identify costs beforehand and comparison shop, then costs begin to come down,” he said. “The free market is the only way to lower costs for anything. It is time to reconnect medical costs to the free market and establish competition in medical care.”

Down time

Barrett enjoys spending time with his family and calls his wife, Gelinda, his source of endless support. Daughter Aprille Cook lives in Demopolis, Ala., where she is a management forester for a private timber company. Son Patrick is an accountant in Ocean Springs. There are three grandsons, Warren and Samuel Barrett Cook and six-month-old Matthew Barrett.

“I love visiting them, and being president can’t compare to being called Pawpaw,” he quipped.

Other leisure activities include playing golf, going to his hunting camp and paying attention to the family farm in Jones County where the Barretts raise trees and cattle.

Even those who know him well might be surprised to learn that he was a rock-and-roll drummer through high school, college and medical school. He even got the band back together and played for his inaugural dance at this year’s MSMA convention.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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